BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) - Their debates now history, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney on Tuesday open a two-week sprint to Election Day powered by adrenaline, a boatload of campaign cash and a determination to reach Nov. 6 with no would-have, should-have regrets in their neck-and-neck fight to the finish.
From here, the candidates will vastly accelerate their travel, ad spending and grass-roots mobilizing in a race that's likely to cost upward of $2 billion by the time it all ends.
All the focus now is on locking down support in the nine states whose electoral votes are still considered up for grabs: Colorado, Iowa, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia. No surprise then, that Obama campaigns Tuesday in Florida and Ohio while Romney heads West to Nevada and Colorado.
Asked Tuesday whether the race comes down to Ohio, Virginia and Florida as some observers have suggested, Vice President Joe Biden described the three as "critically important." He predicted victory in Ohio and Florida - without mentioning Virginia.
"Look, this is going to be close," Biden said in an appearance on NBC's "Today" show. "We always knew at the end of the day this was going to be a close race, no matter who the Republicans nominated."
Neither candidate scored a knockout punch in their third and last debate Monday, as both men reined in the confrontational sniping that had marked their last testy encounter. And though the stated topic this time was foreign policy, both kept circling back to their plans for strengthening the fragile U.S. economy - Job 1 to American voters.
Closing out their trio of debates, Obama concisely summed up this pivot point in Campaign 2012: "You've now heard three debates, months of campaigning and way too many TV commercials. And now you've got a choice."
The president framed it as a choice between his own record of "real progress" and the "wrong and reckless" ideas of Romney.
Romney countered by sketching "two different paths" offered by the candidates, one of decline under Obama and one of brighter promise from himself.
"I know what it takes to get this country back," he pledged.
With polls showing the race remains incredibly tight, first lady Michelle Obama made a prediction before the candidates left Florida that neither side would dispute: "This election will be closer than the last one - that's the only guarantee."
Obama made it look easy in 2008. He won 365 electoral votes to 173 for Republican John McCain. And he got 53 percent of the popular vote, to 46 percent for McCain.
With 270 electoral votes needed for victory, Obama at this point appears on track to win 237 while Romney appears to have 191. The other 110 are in the hotly contested battleground states.
The candidates' strategies for getting to 270 are implicit in their itineraries for the next two weeks and in their spending on campaign ads.
Obama and his Democratic allies already have placed $47 million in ad spending across battlegrounds in the campaign's final weeks, while Romney and the independent groups supporting his candidacy have purchased $53 million, significantly upping their buys in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. And both sides are expected to pad their totals.
After Obama and Biden campaign together in Ohio on Tuesday, the president splits off on what his campaign is describing as a two-day "around-the-clock" blitz to six more battleground states. He'll be in constant motion - making voter calls and sleeping aboard Air Force One as he flies overnight Wednesday from Nevada to Tampa, Fla.
The vice president is midway through a three-day tour of uber-battleground Ohio, and Obama's team contends its best way of ensuring victory is a win there. The campaign says internal polling gives Obama a lead in the Midwestern battleground state, in large part because of the popularity of the president's bailout of the auto industry.
But even if Obama loses Ohio, his campaign sees another pathway to the presidency by nailing New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado.
Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are picking up the pace of their campaigning as well, and their schedule reflects an overarching strategy to drive up GOP vote totals in areas already friendly to the Republican nominee.
The Denver suburbs. Cincinnati. Reno, Nev. They're places that typically vote Republican, but where McCain fell short of the margins he needed to defeat Obama. To win in all-important Ohio, the GOP nominee must outperform McCain in typically Republican areas.
Romney and Ryan start their two-week dash in Henderson, Nev., then hopscotch to the Denver area for a rally with rocker-rapper Kid Rock and country music's Rodney Atkins at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Then Romney heads back to Nevada, on to Iowa and then east to Ohio for three overnights in a row. By week's end, he's likely to be back in Florida.
The following week brings a significant uptick in Romney's schedule. Aides say he'll touch down in two or three states a day, or hold that many daily events in big states like Florida.
Both candidates are done holding fundraisers - no doubt a happy thought for the two of them.
But hold on to your wallets: Supporters will still be out there raising money, and there will be plenty of emails asking for cash right up to the finish.
The president began the month with a little less cash available than Romney, but both have impressive sums to blow through in the home stretch: $150 million for Obama and the Democrats, $183 million for Romney and the Republicans.
Immediately after the final debate, Obama pinged his supporters with an email that said simply: "This is in your hands now. Chip in $5 or more, and let's go win."
Republicans are dramatically bumping up ad spending in the biggest battlegrounds: In Florida, their spending this week hit $9.2 million after averaging about $5.8 million over the last four weeks. In Ohio, GOP ad spending jumped to $9.6 million this week from an average of $6.9 million over the last four weeks. Virginia saw a bump up to $7.9 million, compared with about $5.2 million over the last four weeks.
The Obama campaign on Tuesday released a new TV ad touting recent economic gains. "We're not there yet," Obama says in the ad, "but we've made real progress and the last thing we should do is turn back now." The ad will air in New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Colorado.
Out on the road, Romney has been demonstrating more confidence than ever. He's started making more impromptu stops at local establishments near campaign rallies, a departure from his typically buttoned-down schedule through the summer. His crowds are bigger and more energized, too. And some voters who've attended his recent rallies say his performance helps them to see Romney as a plausible president - not just a candidate.
Obama, for his part, has been projecting a looser, more easygoing demeanor as he campaigns, using humor to undercut Romney.
He riffs about his rival's "Romnesia" - a lighthearted way to drive home his opponent's shifting policy positions.
Both sides are working furiously to lock down every possible early vote, and the results are evident in the 4.4 million people who've already cast ballots.
Obama will detour to Chicago Thursday to make a statement about voting early by becoming the first president to cast his own early ballot.
The country is likely to easily exceed the early voting totals from 2008, when 30 percent of ballots were cast ahead of Election Day, according to Michael McDonald, a George Mason University professor who tracks early voting closely.
In Ohio, McDonald said, numbers are up across the board - in rural, suburban and urban areas. As many as 45 percent of Ohio voters may cast early ballots, compared with less than 30 percent four years ago, he said. The numbers in North Carolina seem to be shifting in the Republicans' direction, McDonald says, and those in Iowa "seem to confirm polling showing a slight Obama lead" there.
This year's quartet of debates - three for the presidential candidates and one for the veeps - started on a friendly note, with Romney wishing Obama and wife Michelle a happy 20th anniversary, but goodwill quickly deteriorated. Both men were at times argumentative and the back-and-forth often shed more heat than light.
Romney started the debate at a disadvantage with a lack of foreign policy experience. But Ryan said former governors have been very effective world leaders.
"Just look back to Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan," Ryan said on "Today." ''What matters is policy doctrine."
Romney came on like gangbusters in the first debate and left a listless Obama reeling as GOP momentum surged. Biden poured it on for the Democrats in his faceoff with Ryan, rolling out a full complement of smirks, eye-rolls and headshakes. Obama himself rebounded in the fractious town-hall debate. Both Obama and Romney were better behaved in their final faceoff, with the president playing up his commander-in-chief credentials to full effect and Romney playing it safe to avoid making mistakes.
From it all - more than 65,000 words of debate rhetoric - there was no signature moment that is likely to be remembered much past Election Day.
Benac reported from Washington. AP writers Nedra Pickler, Julie Pace, Jack Gillum and Beth Fouhy in Washington and Kasie Hunt in Boca Raton, Fla., contributed to this report.
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10/23/2012 6:47:49 AM (GMT -5:00)